At the Community Center, we’re in the midst of planning our annual MUSE gala – and it’s gotten me to thinking about this notion of a Muse. What is it, and how does it relate to creativity?
The word as we use it comes from ancient Greece: in Greek mythology, the “muses” were a group of goddesses who embodied the arts, science, and literature. Prevailing tradition says that they were the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory – and that there were nine of them, each devoted to a different form of art. This being ancient Greece, as many as three (Calliope, Erato, and Polyhymnia) were dedicated to different forms of poetry, and two (Thalia and Melpomene) to drama – comedy and tragedy, respectively. The remainder oversaw astronomy (Urania), history (Clio), flute-playing (Euterpe), and, finally, choral lyric and dancing (Terpsichore).
Our patriarchal culture likes to reduce the artist-muse relationship to a gendered, sexualized power imbalance: think of Pablo Picasso and Marie-Thérèse Walter; Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick; Harvey Weinstein (or Quentin Tarantino) and Uma Thurman. The list of famous artist-muse pairs is endless; each dyad made up of a young, beautiful woman and a creative male genius who is inspired by, but who also threatens to consume and destroy, his muse.
This trope is problematic, to say the least, and it doesn’t do the arts any justice. So let’s go back to the ancient Greek version of the muses, because they’re far more complex, and therefore far more interesting.
Sure, the original muses are depicted as beautiful women who inspired the predominantly male artists of the day. And yes, they’re often shown as cheerful revelers at the feasts on Mount Olympus. But stories also portray them as vengeful gods who weren’t above punishing someone who challenged their abilities. They weren’t just inspiration; the muses were considered the source of all knowledge and creativity. It’s a subtle difference, but it adds an element of agency – of power.
Greek artists knew that they owed something to the muses; they were expected to be grateful and deferential. They understood that the muses were not theirs to objectify and consume.
What I’m taking away from this is that none of us own our inspiration. Inspiration resides somewhere between the artist and the world; it’s an idea we get to borrow and then build something with. And “to be inspired” means more than just a spark in your brain and getting those creative juices flowing. Inspiration is also a drive to be your best self.
A muse is someone (of any gender, to be clear) who prompts ideas, but also someone you admire, and whose expectations you want to live up to. I’ve written before about how expectations can stifle creativity, because they can keep us from thinking too far out of the box. But I think a little bit of expectation can also be motivating. It makes us strive to do better and reach for our best.
Who inspires you these days?